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About Allen Chee

Allen Chee
Allen is a software developer working in the banking domain. Apart from hacking code and tinkering with technology, he reads a lot about history, so that mistakes of the past need not be repeated if they are remembered.

Cryptography Using JCA – Services In Providers

The Java Cryptography Architecture (JCA) is an extensible framework that enables you to use perform cryptographic operations. JCA also promotes implementation independence (program should not care about who’s providing the cryptographic service) and implementation interoperability (program should not be tied to a specific provider of a particular cryptographic service).

JCA allows numerous cryptographic services e.g. ciphers, key generators, message digests to be bundled up in a java.security.Provider class, and registered declaratively in a special file (java.security) or programmatically via the java.security.Security class (method ‘addProvider’).

Although JCA is a standard, different JDKs implement JCA differently. Between Sun/Oracle and IBM JDKs, the IBM JDK is sort of more ‘orderly’ than Oracle’s. For instance, IBM’s uber provider (com.ibm.crypto.provider.IBMJCE) implements the following keystore formats: JCEKS, PKCS12KS (PKCS12), JKS. Oracle JDK ‘spreads’ the keystore format implementations into the following providers:

  • sun.security.provider.Sun – JKS
  • com.sun.crypto.provider.SunJCE – JCEKS
  • com.sun.net.ssl.internal.ssl.Provider – PKCS12

Despite the popular recommendation to write applications that do not point to a specific Provider class, there are some use cases that require an application/program to know exactly what services a Provider class is offering. This requirement becomes more prevalent when supporting multiple application servers that may be tightly coupled with a particular JDK e.g. WebSphere bundled with IBM JDK. I usually use Tomcat+Oracle JDK for development (more lightweight, faster), but my testing/production setup is WebSphere+IBM JDK. To further complicate matters, my project needs the use of a hardware security module (HSM) which uses the JCA API via the provider class com.ncipher.provider.km.nCipherKM. So, when I am at home (without access to the HSM), I would want to continue writing code but at least get the codes tested on a JDK provider. I can then switch to use the nCipherKM provider for another round of unit testing before committing the code to source control.

The usual assumption is that one Provider class is enough e.g. IBMJCE for IBM JDKs, SunJCE for Oracle JDKs. So the usual solution is to implement a class that specifies one provider, using reflection to avoid compile errors due to ‘Class Not Found’:

//For nShield HSM
Class c = Class.forName('com.ncipher.provider.km.nCipherKM');
Provider provider = (Provider)c.newInstance();

//For Oracle JDK
Class c = Class.forName('com.sun.crypto.provider.SunJCE');
Provider provider = (Provider)c.newInstance();

Class c = Class.forName('com.ibm.crypto.provider.IBMJCE');
Provider provider = (Provider)c.newInstance();

This design was OK, until I encountered a NoSuchAlgorithmException error running some unit test cases on Oracle JDK. And the algorithm I was using is RSA, a common algorithm! How can this be, the documentation says that RSA is supported! The same test cases worked fine on IBM JDK.

Upon further investigation, I realised that much to my dismay, the SunJCE provider does not have an implementation for the KeyPairGenerator service for RSA. An implementation however is found in the provider class sun.security.rsa.SunRsaSign. So the assumption of ‘1 provider to provide them all’ is broken. But thanks to JCA’s open API, a Provider object can be passed in when requesting for a Service instance e.g.

KeyGenerator kgen = KeyGenerator.getInstance('AES', provider);

To help with my inspection of the various Provider objects, I’ve furnished a JUnit test to pretty-print out the various services of each registered Provider instance in a JDK.

package org.gizmo.jca;

import java.security.Provider;
import java.security.Provider.Service;
import java.security.Security;
import java.util.Comparator;
import java.util.SortedSet;
import java.util.TreeSet;

import javax.crypto.KeyGenerator;

import org.bouncycastle.jce.provider.BouncyCastleProvider;
import org.junit.Test;

public class CryptoTests {

 public void testBouncyCastleProvider() throws Exception {
  Provider p = new BouncyCastleProvider();
  String info = p.getInfo();
  System.out.println(p.getClass() + ' - ' + info);

 public void testProviders() throws Exception {

  Provider[] providers = Security.getProviders();
  for(Provider p : providers) {
   String info = p.getInfo();
   System.out.println(p.getClass() + ' - ' + info);

 private void printServices(Provider p) {

                       services = new TreeSet

                       (new ProviderServiceComparator());

  for(Service service : services) {
   String algo = service.getAlgorithm();
   System.out.println('==> Service: ' + service.getType() + ' - ' + algo);

  * This is to sort the various Services to make it easier on the eyes...
 private class ProviderServiceComparator implements Comparator


  public int compare(Service object1, Service object2) {
   String s1 = object1.getType() + object1.getAlgorithm();
   String s2 = object2.getType() + object2.getAlgorithm();;

   return s1.compareTo(s2);


Anyway, if the algorithms you use are common and strong enough for your needs, the BouncyCastle provider can be used. It works well across JDKs (tested against IBM & Oracle). BouncyCastle does not support JKS or JCEKS keystore formats, but if you are not fussy, the BC keystore format works just fine. BouncyCastle is also open source and can be freely included in your applications.

Tip: JKS keystores cannot store SecretKeys. You can try it as your homework

Hope this post will enlighten you to explore JCA further, or at least be aware of the pitfalls of ‘blissful ignorance’ when working with JCA.

Reference: Cryptography Using JCA – Services In Providers from our JCG partner Allen Julia at the YK’s Workshop blog.

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